Things to Do in Riviera Maya & the Yucatan
Kept hidden from the public until 2007 and strictly adhering to its sustainable tourism model, the evocatively named Rio Secreto, or “Secret River,” is deserved of its reputation as the best kept secret of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. A dramatic series of caves carved out by the flow of an ancient underground river, the Rio Secreto is most famous for its large half-sunken cavern, one of few in the world that is accessible to non-professional divers.
Venturing underground, visitors can explore the eerie passageways that once formed part of the mysterious, yet much talked about Mayan underworld; swim in the fabled underground river; and admire the unique natural caves, dripping with stalactites, stalagmites and strikingly colored mineral formations.
Part of the Cozumel Reefs National Park (or Parque Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel) Faro de Punta Celerain, also known as Punta Sur, Ecological Park offers some of the best diving and snorkeling around Cozumel. If you want to dive, go through one of the island's many dive operators. If you'd just like to snorkel, however, you can rent equipment and guides right here.
In addition to the undersea attractions, Punta Sur has broad, beautiful beaches (the reef is well offshore, so you can splash around safely), great seafood, and shady hammocks. If you're up for a some terrestrial exploration, you could climb the Faro de Punta Celerain (Celerain Point Lighthouse), with great views, or visit the tiny Mayan shrine to Ixcel, the fertility goddess, known as Tumba de Caracol. Punta Sur also has interesting wetlands, a magnet for migratory birds in April and May, and home to lots of crocodiles year-round.
The El Rey Ruins (or Las Ruinas del Rey) are a spectacular archeological site in Cancun's Hotel Zone, with 47 structures estimated to have been inhabited by the Mayans as early as 900 AD. There are two primary platforms and temples believed to be the remains of religious ceremonial buildings and market areas.
El Rey was named for the ceremonial mask and skull found on the site to honor the Mayan Sun God and over the years further excavations have incited speculation over the ruins history. Although, the El Rey Ruins are not as large in size when compared to Chichen Itza, many visitors enjoy taking pictures of the hundreds of Iguanas that call the ruins home. The Iguanas are unafraid of humans as the park guides keep them well-fed with tortillas.
The Mayans called this breathtaking underwater destination a sacred well. Today, travelers call it a once-in-a-lifetime SCUBA diving experience. That’s because open water certified divers can explore the incredible caves and underground rivers that have been around for nearly 7,000 years. Some 300 miles of connected underwater passageways create what can only be described as a truly natural wonder. Visitors can get an up close look at the remarkable ecosystems that exist only here and float through clear blue waters in a landscape filled with rocky stalactites and stalagmites.
Cancun’s best, most festive and most authentic fiesta tradition, Xoximilco, is an eponymous throwback and homage to the floating gardens and canals of Mexico City’s famous neighbor-hood Xochimilco. Xochimilco means “field of flowers,”and this Cancun attraction brings all the beauty and splendor of the floating gardens of Mexico City to the tropical paradise of Cancun. Today, a visit to Xoximilco entices guests with Central American traditions like floating flower-strung boats, live music serenades and some of the best food in Cancun.
Find everything you need for a relaxing and fun day at the beach with an all-inclusive day pass to Mr. Sanchos Beach Club Cozumel. Situated on a private, 1,500-foot-long stretch of white-sand beach, Mr. Sanchos has all the usual beach amenities like umbrellas and lounge chairs, as well as an infinity pool and an Aqua Park with inflatable climbing structures and water trampolines. Day passes include all you can eat and drink from the restaurant and bar, and there are abundant activities available for an additional fee, including parasiling, ATV tours, massages and horseback riding.
Relaxed Chankanaab Park - or Parque Chankanaab - is a lovely and laid-back "eco archaeological park," just south of the town of Cozumel. There are several attractions on dry land, including faux Mayan ruins, pleasant gardens, dolphin and sea lion shows, and good seafood.
The main attraction, however, is the wildlife rich undersea park, which you can explore with rented snorkel equipment. They also offer regular diving (you must have PADI certification) and the Sea Trek Adventure, like a resort dive with a breathing helmet but no certification necessary. You could also swim in a tank with dolphins, manatees and sea lions for an extra fee.
More Things to Do in Riviera Maya & the Yucatan
El Cedral is a small village on the southwestern side of Cozumel and also the site of the oldest Mayan ruins on the island. Spanish explorers first discovered the site in 1518, when it was a center of Mayan life and commerce. It later became the island’s first official city in 1847, andtoday it is home to a small community of quaint houses and farms. Visitors can view the ruins alongside a small church and the village of El Cedral as it stands today.
Most of the Mayan temple was torn down, but a small archway remains. Though it is just a fraction of the structure’s former glory, it is enough to visualize what daily life may have been like at the time of Mayan civilization. In late April, you can catch the annual Festival de El Cedral, celebrating local artists, music and traditions. Year-round there are vendors selling embroidered handicrafts and refreshments.
Close your eyes and think of Cancun; now what exactly do you see? More than likely it’s white sand beaches in front of large resorts, where cobalt waters lap the shore and palm trees sway in the breeze. For as enticing as beaches and water might be, there’s an entirely different side of Cancun that offers just as much excitement; a place where you swim in turquoise waters set miles inside of the jungle, and literally race through the jungle canopy to feel the breeze in your hair.
At the famous Selvatica Eco-Park, an hour south of Cancun, visitors can infuse their beach vacation with a shot of jungle adrenaline. Clip into a harness and race through the trees on the 12-line zipline adventure, or test your nerves on a bungee swing while staring out over the forest. If you’d prefer that a motor generate the speed—rather than regular old gravity—crank the throttle of an ATV while splashing through dirt and mud.
There are dozens of ways to see Cancun but one of the most entertaining is aboard the Captain Hook Pirate Ship. Spend an evening enjoying dinner served by salty sea men followed by dancing on the deck and an all-night open bar.
The cannon’s fire signals the departure of this famous ship. As the night progresses visitors can enjoy tales from the high sea, as well as a live enemy attack complete with swords and pistols. A ride aboard the Captain Hook Pirate Ship is the perfect way to experience life on the sea without the fear of being forced to walk the plank.
Beautiful, underwater sinkholes flooded with light, the cenotes of Riviera Maya, Mexico are a natural wonder and a sight to behold. Though there are many throughout the region, Casa Cenote is uniquely located in a mangrove forest close to the sea. It can be thought of as almost an underwater jungle with its algae-covered mangrove forest and soft sands.
As it is mostly open to the sky, it is less enclosed than neighboring cenotes and often has more aquatic life to see. The cenote connects one of the world’s largest underwater river systems to the ocean. Because of this, it is possible to see both fresh and saltwater fish. The unique combination of clear freshwater conditions and underwater caverns and formations make this an interesting spot for scuba divers and snorkelers. Streams of light penetrating the water from the surface add to the beauty and intrigue visible from both above and below.
The ancient Mayans believed hidden cenotes were sacred portals to the underworld. Given the dark, eerie surroundings and stalactites dripping from above, it’s easy to see how these subterranean caves inspired the paranormal awe. At Cenote Chaak Tun outside Playa del Carmen, venture inside an enormous cave where early Mayans once roamed, and splash in the cool, almost secret waters that are hidden back in the forest. Unlike some of the larger cenotes on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Cenote Chaak Tun is still relatively unknown and has half the amount of crowds. Follow the beam of your powerful headlamp into the twisting cave, where the faint squeaks of bats on the ceiling add to the spooky soundtrack. Cool off in the refreshing waters that twist their way through the cave, and hear traditional Mayan tales of the legends, myths, and sacred beliefs towards this mysterious and powerful place.
One of the most popular dives in all of Cozumel, Paradise Reef proudly lives up to its name by offering numerous coral heads, teeming schools of colorful fish, and some of the best visibility anywhere in the world. Divers that look closely will spot numerous species of larger sea life such as eels, rays and nurse shark in addition to smaller creatures such as seahorses, boxfish and the delicate pipefish. A great dive for those who are just entering into the world of scuba as well as advanced divers who want to add a little color to their dives, Paradise Reef is one of the best dive spots in Cozumel.
Cancun is full of places to party, but the young and energetic late-night set knows the exclusive Mandala Night Club is the best place to sip strong drinks, dance to loud beats and mingle with a truly cosmopolitan crowd. Guests love the wide-open dance floor, glittery lights and impressive entryway. Fifty dollars gets partygoers through the door and keeps drinks in their hands, too, with access to an all-night open bar.
Less than 1% of the Earth is covered in coral—yet these reefs are home to over 25% of the world’s total marine species. Unfortunately, despite their abundance of biodiversity, coral reefs across the globe are in a serious state of decline. That said, in places like the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park off the island’s southern coast, the establishment of a protected coral reserve is helping the reef to thrive.
In the warm waters off Cozumel’s coast, 26 different species of coral house 300 species of fish. Some fish, like the Splendid Toadfish, are endemic to the reefs of Cozumel—which means that the fish are only found here in these colorful castles in the sand. Hawksbill and green sea turtles are frequently spotted in the marine park’s 29,000 acres, which also encompasses mangrove forests and sandy sections of shoreline.
The star attraction of the Cozumel Reefs National Park - or Parque Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel - not to mention Jacques Cousteau's television show, which quite literally put Cozumel on the map - is Palancar Reef. Actually composed of 4 separate coral reefs, it is home to sea turtles, rays, nurse sharks, barracudas, moray eels, lobsters, crabs, and a keleidescope of colorful fish.
Boats leaving from Playa Palancar take snorkelers out to the shallowest parts of the reef, about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from shore. Scuba divers, however, have several world-famous spots to explore. The Palancar Caves are probably the most famous attraction, with huge brain corals and swim-through tunnels. Palancar Horseshoe is another massive formation of huge corals, some partially damaged in 2005 by Hurricane Wilma. Less experienced divers can visit Palancar Gardens, a shallower spot with mellow currents.
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